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Supreme Court Ruling Clarifies State Action in Social Media: Lindke v. Freed

Posted by Daniel Zerga | Apr 17, 2024

On March 15, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reached a decision in the case of Lindke v. Freed. The Court held that when a public official prohibits individuals from commenting on their social media page, it constitutes state action under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 if the official both “(1) possessed actual authority to speak on the State's behalf on a particular matter, and (2) purported to exercise that authority when speaking in the relevant social-media posts.” 

This case delves into the boundaries of a public official's ability to block users from a page containing both public and private content. In 2014, James Freed became the city manager for Port Huron, Michigan, and updated his Facebook page to reflect his new role. He shared personal updates along with information related to his duties as city manager, including matters concerning COVID-19 and Port Huron's pandemic response policies. Kevin Lindke, a Port Huron resident dissatisfied with Freed's handling of the pandemic, left critical comments on Freed's Facebook page, prompting Freed to block him.

Lindke subsequently sued Freed under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights due to restrictions placed on his ability to comment on Freed's Facebook page, which he argued constituted a public forum. Both a federal district court in Michigan and the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city manager, ruling that Freed did not engage in state action by posting on Facebook. Essentially, these lower courts determined that Freed's posts were more reflective of his role as a private citizen rather than as a government official.

The Supreme Court unanimously vacated and remanded the decision. Justice Barrett, writing for the Court, clarified that Freed's status as a state employee was not decisive. Barrett explained that “the line between private conduct and state action is difficult to draw.” She also noted that “the distinction between private conduct and state action turns on substance, not labels.” Barrett further explained that a government official's social media account could be one of “mixed use” where sometimes the government officials posts as a government official and sometimes post for personal reasons. Therefore, categorizing conduct requires careful scrutiny.

Essentially, there are circumstances where government officials may block constituents from their social media pages, provided they do not claim to speak on behalf of the state and are not addressing matters within their official authority. The Court cautioned that assessing such situations requires detailed examination and that mere appearances and functionality are not sufficient. Lower courts, as part of step 1, are instructed to evaluate whether the official has the authority to speak on behalf of the government. Step 2 requires lower courts to consider whether the official purported to exercise that authority in their posts.

Furthermore, “[t]he appearance and function of the social media account are relevant at the second step, but they cannot make up for a lack of state authority at the first.” If these two steps are met, an official cannot block an individual, even if the blocking was aimed at preventing comments on personal posts. Because the Sixth Circuit applied a standard different from the Court's, it must reconsider the outcome using the Supreme Court's test.

Notably, in a per curiam opinion, the justices also addressed a similar companion case, Garnier v. O'Connor-Ratcliff, involving two California school board members who blocked parents on social media. The Court vacated the Ninth Circuit's ruling that the school board members were acting “under color of state law” and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the Lindke decision.

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This Parker & Covert LLP post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Legal issues and principles apply differently, sometimes substantially, depending on context and facts. Review or receipt of this post does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Daniel Zerga


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Parker and Covert LLP, through its Northern and Southern California offices, provides comprehensive legal representation to school districts, community colleges, and other educational clients in communities throughout the state of California.